The cover story of this weekend’s New York Times Sunday Magazine is a piece by Michael Pollan about the decline of cooking in America. Pollan writes about premade and microwaveable meals, he discusses the role of cooking in the history of humanity, and he points out the relationship between cooking meals at home and good health. Where much of his work has then gone on to explore the production side of food (where it comes from, what’s actually in it, big agriculture, etc.) the focus of this argument is about another significant aspect of food culture in America: food television.
Pollan first describes some of the history of food on television, beginning with Julia Child, and then he goes on to speculate about the changing role of programming on The Food Network. He points out that the average American spends 27 minutes a day on food preparation, but that millions spend more than twice that time watching food shows like Top Chef, Chopped, or The Next Food Network Star. “What this suggests,” Pollan writes, “is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking for themselves – an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.” What’s up with cooking, he wonders, and in a related query, what’s up with television?
The full article has many answers to this question, and I highly recommend spending the time to read the whole thing. In all his queasily detailed descriptions of flame-licked beef of gooey doughnuts crammed into mouths, I was surprised Pollan didn’t fall back on one of the well-known truisms of food television – that it is, in its style, cinematography, and format, nearly identical to pornography. Pollan laments the absence of sensuality and pleasure in televised descriptions of food preparation, and while I absolutely agree that convenience and speed have become a much higher priority than pride in manual labor, there’s certainly no dearth of sensuality on Guy’s Big Bite. (Because seriously? That sounds like a film you can’t rent until you’re 18.)
Pollan argues that our pleasure in food has been redirected away from preparation and onto the experience of consumption. We watch Guy Fieri shovel fried clams into his mouth without ever imagining making them ourselves. We marvel as Iron Chefs dash around Kitchen Stadium, a culinary battleground that even further distances their cooking from our own kitchens. Still, I wonder whether the whole story is that easy when Food Network also features Ina Garten grinning with pleasure as she covers her hands with flour to knead dough and Alton Brown jokily explaining how easy it is to cook a duck. Sure, some food television is worse than others, but not every show focuses solely on images of French fries tumbling into open mouths.
It may not be that food television is inherently pushing us away from food preparation (after all, it’s not as though pornography is generally considered to dissuade us from sex). No, it’s television that pushes us away. Food television is, after all, one of the original incarnations of reality television. With the success of a broader range of shows that feature “real” people doing “real” things (American Idol, Survivor, Big Brother, Biggest Loser and countless others), food reality has grown to match its successful competitors. It has to be a contest. It has to be real, but not so real that the audience is bored. Reality television is allowed to speak directly to us – Lose weight! Don’t be a pregnant sixteen year-old! Vote for your favorite contestant! – but we are always the audience. We’re not going to go out and learn how to ballroom dance, so the closest we come to participating is to text in our vote or order something in a restaurant because we saw Giada make it.
Michael Pollan is, of course, absolutely right about food television and our relationship with it. Anything televised is a spectator sport. But he doesn’t address the place where I think future generations of people will learn how to cook, the place where participation is expected, the place where preparation is discussed and amended in great, painstaking detail. Whence the internet, Michael Pollan? Where did the food blogs go? I certainly can’t argue that the state of American cooking isn’t dire, or that food television isn’t a contributing factor, but while food blogs are a growing, popular presence on the internet, I still see a glimmer of hope.
Yeah, screw television! Internet rocks!
Wait, where am I? How did I get to this place?! I didn’t mean it, I take it back! Sort of!
As per comment suggestion, I’m watching Slings and Arrows, so no worries. Next week will be back to the standard “television is awesome!” party line.